The Cyclists Approach

Posted on August 8th, 2012

I went to Knightsbridge a few Saturdays ago  for the start of the Men’s Cycling Road Race. It was a slightly bizarre experience. There were thousands of people lined up along Knightsbridge, often two or three deep. It was busy a good hour before the riders were even due to pass. It was the busiest I can remember seeing London at 9am on a Saturday (note: I rarely see London at 9am on a Saturday).

Of course, part of the problem with standing on the side of the road for things like this is the lack of knowledge about where the damn cyclists are. But then you see a procession of cars screaming down the road like a police chase, you see the TV helicopters hovering just overhead, their noise acting like a rumbling proximity alarm. Then you see a herd poke into view, and the crowd erupts.

 Actually, from a crowd perspective the whole thing is rather anticlimactic. The cyclists come, they whizz past, and then they go. They’re not even really racing at this stage, generally preferring to conserve their energy for the outer London and Box Hill sections of the race. Many people had come out to see the current stars of British cycling, Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and co, and Wiggins appeared to be leading the peloton out of London in ceremonial deference to his very recent Tour de France victory. But even though they weren’t really in full race mode yet they still all just whizzed passed, quick enough to only leave a short glimpse, crowded together still to form a jumble of spokes and a spectrum of lycra.

After they rushed off towards the Surrey countryside, and after the lone Russian rider at the back who I assume had technical troubles at the start line came racing by with a sense of urgency, everyone just stood around for a bit, realised that was it, and scattered in their separate directions. And as I saw the police screaming past on their motorbikes, a part of me thought of how a group of cyclists had a very different kind of police escort roughly 12 hours before.

TfL have been pushing cycling as a good way to travel for some time now, and the Boris Bike scheme is a good indication of their desire to push cycling. However, they haven’t taken into account just how poor cycle route provision is in large parts of London, with their Cycle Superhighways coming in for much criticism for endangering cyclists as much as helping them. Critical Mass, a regular cycle meet that ride around London, went a little too close to the Olympic Park and ended up getting kettled and arrested en masse, with reasoning that can be called dubious at best. Given the way that these cyclists were treated, and given the fact that the one death of the games so far was a cyclist being mowed down by a bus, and you can see that cycling still has a long way to go to get the respect it doesn’t just deserve but needs.

Cycling should be in a golden age in Britain right now. UK Sport has clearly identified at one of our top sports and given it appropriate funding, and similarly Sky have seen it as a way to get good PR and have pumped money not only into professional cycling but also grass roots campaigns. It all seems worthless if there’s no good roads to cycle on any more. When my last bike broke down I didn’t bother replacing it, partly because public transport around here has improved quite a bit but mainly because the whole thing was becoming too much hassle. Maybe I’d like to start cycling again, but I also found it stressful – not physically so much (though it is to start with) but mentally.

The combination of the success of the cycle team at this Olympics with the the Critical Mass and bus incidents has brought a lot of attention to the two wheeled way, both good and bad. Cycling is interesting in that it’s probably the one sport that also doubles as a lifestyle choice. Encouraging cycling as a method of transport is a great idea in terms of reducing pollution levels and getting people exercising, but it’s pointless doing so if the cycle provision is such that it endangers cyclists. There’s no point inspiring a generation of new cyclists if they have nowhere to cycle. If cycling is going to make the move from being a sport to a transit system, we all (cyclists, drivers, town planners) need to work out how to make it safer and less hassle.

Maybe I’ll get back on my bike at that point.